“An influencer is a kind of digital personality who has a large amount of influence over their young followers. Our study shows that they use a number of tricks to influence them,” says researcher Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes at Consumption Research Norway (SIFO).
Together with Helene Teigen, she has collected and analysed marketing images from Norwegian and foreign influencers on Instagram.
They have also conducted focus group interviews with young people aged between 15 and 22. This is one of the first research studies on influencer marketing in Norway.
Role models that sell a lifestyle
Some of the marketing tricks discovered by the researchers is that influencers act like a friend to their followers, speak directly to them whilst sneaking in adverts almost imperceptibly.
“They make a living from selling an image, a lifestyle. We are not even necessarily talking about a real person. In some places, following digital avatars is popular,” explains Teigen.
“Norwegian influencers do not just sell individual products, but rather a whole lifestyle. They are major role models for young people. Their followers want everything the influencers have, for example, their clothes, their friends and their whole lifestyle,” continues Steinnes.
The researchers only looked at the influencers who use advertising. There are also many influencers who choose not to use advertising.
The researchers nonetheless have the impression that many influencers promote a certain lifestyle which often includes materialism and having a perfect body.
The mapping of photos from Instagram showed that many influencers promote luxury and materialistic consumption. That was a surprise because we had imagined that they would be more ordinary.– Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes
They come across as your best friend
Adverts frequently pop up as young people are scrolling. Posts are sometimes marked as advertising, but not always. People stop scrolling when they see a familiar face.
For example, a make-up product suddenly becomes more interesting if it is recommended by someone you already follow, or a pair of football boots are cool if Zlatan wears them during a match.
The most effective influencing mechanisms are the friendly and personal ties young people feel they have with influencers. The researchers call these ties “parasocial interactions”. This is a well-known phenomenon where we feel we know and have relationships with well-known TV characters.
“Many influencers use expressions like ‘my people’ etc. to come across as a friend or sibling. That is where their trustworthiness lies,” explains Steinnes.
And who wouldn’t want to follow the recommendations of their best friend or cool older sister?
“They are so good at speaking to ‘me’. They use personal pronouns and speak to the individual, which makes the individual feel special,” Teigen elaborates.
At the same time, many influencers are big businesses and have staff. There is nothing random about what they share.
Adverts seem spontaneous and real
Adverts can be sneaked in almost imperceptibly. The most important commercial strategy is seamless integration of all content, which makes it hard to grasp what is and is not an advert.
“They are good at getting advertising to not seem like advertising. They sneak it into a post so that it seems like the product just popped up by accident. Adverts are more effective when they are not perceived as adverts. If young people understand that it is an advert, they become sceptical,” says Steinnes.
The most effective advertising is when it suits the influencer’s image. For example, if the influencer is interested in health and working out and they advertise a health product.
“Then it seems credible that it is coming from them. She is putting her name to it, it is her personal opinion,” Teigen elaborates.
“They are good at hiding advertising and coming across as spontaneous and real. But everything may be planned, there is no way of knowing,” she says.
Aware and unaware at the same time
How aware are young people about what goes on around them? Apparently, they are both aware and unaware at the same time.
“When we speak to young people, they are aware of how advertising affects them. But they also know that they are being influenced while they scroll. It is difficult to be aware in the moment,” says Steinnes.
“They know that many influencers make a living from advertising but are unsure about whether they actually like the product,” says Teigen.
She adds: “Defining adverts as adverts makes the influencer appear more credible, but can be a little disconcerting at the same time. Is this a company or a person? Individuals are aware that some influencers earn a fortune, but they are still perceived as people with feelings and personality.”
Be aware of the strategies influencers use to get people hooked on following them. Try to resist the pressure to have a perfect body and resist the influence to buy stuff.– Helene Teigen
Are there any positives to take away?
The researchers can see both positive and negative takeaways of young people spending a lot of time following the lives of influencers.
The most obvious negative effect is that young people feel that they must acquire different products – status symbols – to fit in.
The researchers believe that this can be easily transferred into life offline and create a sense of outsiderness at school.
Young people use social media and follow influencers for entertainment and to relax.
They also say that it can be useful for picking up current trends and news updates. For example, young people can find out about products they were not aware of and find inspiration.
Some influencers are more driven by idealism than commercial considerations. Meanwhile, some young people become more interested in politics by following certain bloggers.
Advice to children and young people
Steinnes and Teigen have some good advice for children and young people, and perhaps their parents too, about how they should relate to influencers.
“Make sure you only follow those who give you something positive,” says Steinnes.
“Be aware of the strategies influencers use to get people hooked on following them. Try to resist the pressure to have a perfect body and resist the influence to buy stuff,” says Teigen.
“It is important to be aware in the moment, although being aware all the time is hard,” concludes Steinnes.